Is Chess the Drosophila of AI? A Social History of an Algorithm

Nathan Ensmenger, University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science, Regional Colloquium

Friday, October 22, 2010 - 4:00pm

Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, 427 Chestnut St

Join scholars from the area for the Regional Colloquium in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine for a discussion of the role of computer chess in defining the identity and research agenda of artificial intelligence. Please download and read the paper in advance. Time: Discussion, 4:00 - 5:30 p.m.,
followed by social hour and light dinner
Location: Benjamin Franklin Hall, 427 Chestnut Street Commentary by Hyungsub Choi. Abstract: Since the mid-1960s, researchers in computer science have famously referred to chess as the "drosophila" of artificial intelligence. What they seem to mean by this is that chess, like the common fruit fly, is an accessible, familiar, and relatively simple experimental technology that nonetheless can be productively used to produce valid knowledge about other, more complex systems. But for historians of science and technology, the analogy between chess and drosophila assumes a larger significance. As Robert Kohler has ably described, the decision to adopt drosophila as the organism of choice for genetics research had far-reaching implications for the development of 20th century biology. In a similar manner, the decision to focus on chess as the measure of both human and computer intelligence had important and unintended consequences for artificial intelligence research. This paper explores the history of computer chess as an experimental technology and the ways in which the decision to focus on chess shaped the research agenda of artificial intelligence for several decades. More broadly, it attempts to open up the virtual black box of computer software -- and of computer games in particular -- to the scrutiny of historical and sociological analysis. Nathan Ensmenger studied engineering and applied mathematics at Princeton University and the history of science at the University of Pennsylvania. His current research interests are aimed at reintegrating the history of the "information revolution''--very broadly defined to encompass a wide range of 19th and 20th century scientific, technological and social developments--into mainstream American social and cultural history. Hyungsub Choi is Manager for Electronics, Innovation and Emerging Technology Programs at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.